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The Maltese Falcon

October 19, 2010

144. The Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston
USA, 1941
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing


When two people are murdered, private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) becomes entangled with a group of untrustworthy criminals searching for a jewel-encrusted MacGuffin falcon statuette. Suspected by the police and surrounded by compulsive liars, he somehow works his way to the truth.

Top Five Reasons To Love Peter Lorre:

  1. Just listen to him!
  2. His ability to move his hair independently of his brow.
  3. The way his voice tails off on the line; “There is no hurry, it’s getting quite late and…”
  4. The temper tantrum that surely inspired Ren & Stimpy: “You imbecile, you, you bloated idiot! You stupid fat-head you!”
  5. When he’s slapped, he’ll take it and like it.


The Maltese Falcon served as my introduction to film noir, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, for which I am eternally grateful. It sparked my interest in cinema and it remains one of my favourites. The film is steeped in world-weary cynicism, neatly balanced with the characters’ eccentricity and wit.

Sam Spade: Was there any truth at all in that yarn?

Brigid O’Shaughnessy: Some. Not very much.

With the exception of The Usual Suspects, in which an entire flashback is fabricated, few films are filled with such flagrant falsehoods. Much of the ‘action’ takes place in extended dialogue scenes, as characters dance verbally around each other with lies upon lies. It’s quite a feat that The Maltese Falcon is so compelling, nay thrilling.

Fascinating fact: The term “gunsel” was popularized in this film and assumed to mean a criminal gunman. In fact it originates from the Yiddish “gendzel”, meaning “little goose” and used to denote a homosexual youth. This is one of several coded messages suggesting that the villains are gay. Explicit references were forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code, which was rooted in staunchly Catholic values.

Reviewed by Rachel
Second viewing

Essential Scene:

Sam Spade’s secretary, Effie Perrine, enters the office with a business card in her hand. She shows it to Sam, who is on the phone. He hangs up and takes the business card. Noticing it has an unusual fragrance, he smells it.

Effie: Gardenia.

Sam: Quick, darling, in with him.

Joel Cairo enters, impeccably dressed and with a suave manner. He gives Sam his condolences over the death of his business partner, with obvious ulterior motive. Cairo has confidence in his voice but his gaze is mostly on his walking stick, not on Sam.

Cairo admits that it wasn’t “idle curiosity” that prompted him to ask. He wants to recover a statue, a statue of a black bird, and he wants Sam’s help.

Sam’s secretary buzzes the intercom. Sam informs her she can leave for the night. The minute Sam hangs up the phone, Cairo stands up with a gun in his hands.

Cairo: You will clasp your hands together at the back of your neck. I intend to search your offices, Mr. Spade. I warn you, if you attempt to prevent me, I shall certainly shoot you.

Cairo tells Sam to stand in the centre of the room. Cairo goes to frisk Sam but Sam spins around and punches Cairo, disarming him and knocking him out.

Sam goes through Cairo’s wallet and possessions. Many passports and money in various currencies. A perfumed handkerchief.

As Cairo wakes up, Sam pockets his gun.

Cairo: Look what you’ve done to my shirt.

They discuss the figure and the money that Cairo is offering for it. Eventually, Cairo prepares to leave.

Cairo: May I please have my gun now?

Sam: Oh sure. I’d forgotten all about it. [Hands gun over]

Cairo points the gun at Sam.

Cairo: Will you please clasp your hands together at the back of your neck? I intend to search your offices.

Sam: [Laughing] Well I’ll be… Why sure… Go ahead, I won’t stop ya!

Now that’s gall!


The Maltese Falcon has a very complex plot which, in theory, could make it unwatchable. (Which is why I’ve pawned off the task of writing the synopsis to m’colleague…)

But the element of confusion adds to the film’s overall brilliance. Sam Spade doesn’t know who is against him, you don’t know who is against him, the low angle camera shots and low lighting make everyone look rather intimidating and the ceilings look so low that they could cave in. Yet there is always an element of humour in the music and dialogue which eases this intensity.

I’m grateful that this was made at a time where everything didn’t have to be blood spilling action with quick cuts. In this era of filmmaking, could a director get away with having an end scene which is around twenty minutes long, with a lot of dialogue and set in only one room? They should try it again sometime. With these intriguing characters it is absolutely gripping.

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